Every year, thousands of Google developers gather at Shoreline Amphitheater in Mountain View, California for Google IO, the company’s biggest developer show of the year. Google executives take the stage to show the latest tools, features, and updates coming to all of the company’s products.
The keynote address starts at 10 am Pacific (1 pm Eastern) on Wednesday, May 17. The video player at the top of this page will start showing the live feed about an hour before the keynote address begins. We’ll also be running a liveblog filled with commentary and analysis—join in.
What should you expect? Lots of talk about Android, for sure. Google will most likely show enhancements to its mobile operating system, the most-used piece of software in the world that powers close to two billion devices. We’ll also hear about Google’s cloud services, from the corporate end all the way down to the consumer stuff like Gmail. There’s no hotter topic in Silicon Valley than AI, and Google has always been at the forefront of AI research and development. We should definitely expect the company to tell us about how it’s pushing machine learning, voice recognition, and computer vision. Speaking of computer vision, the other hot topic in tech is “mixed reality” (or augmented reality), where real-world images are overlayed with computer imagery. Facebook, Microsoft, and Snapchat are all leading the charge here, so we can expect Google to show some moves as well. Just join us in hoping they don’t bring Google Glass back from the dead.
Imagine you’re HTC. You were once atop the smartphone heap, making some of the best-designed and most impressive Android devices on the planet. Life was so exciting! Then everyone else kept improving, and you didn’t. Samsung, and Apple, and Xiaomi, and Oppo, and, well, just about everybody passed you by. You’re trying to get back into the game. What do do you?
If you answered “throw a hundred ideas into a single phone and see what happens,” congratulations! You just joined HTC’s product team. The company’s new phone, the U11, sounds like a youth soccer league but is absolutely loaded to the brim with interesting new tech and ideas. There’s Edge Sense, an entirely new interface that lets you gently squeeze the sides of your phone to take a selfie, dictate a text, or open an app—like 3D Touch, only on the sides of the phone instead of the screen. There’s also a new design language HTC calls “Liquid Surface,” a super-refractive (and by the looks of it, super-reflective) glass manufacturing process that makes the phone glisten in the light. HTC’s even touting its audio prowess, which it calls USonic, and incorporates into a pair of noise-cancelling headphones that come with the new phone.
The U11’s most awesome feature is its Alexa integration. It works hands-free, so you don’t have to unlock the phone to use Alexa—and you get all the same stuff you’d get on an Echo. If the Fire Phone had survived, this is how Amazon would have integrated its virtual assistant. Since it’s an Android phone, the U11 also has Google Assistant; you decide which you want to talk to at any given time. And since it’s an HTC phone, there’s a whole other assistant too! The Sense Companion keeps your phone running smoothly, reminds you to leave for work on time, helps with fitness goals, and the like. You could argue three assistants is too many, but we’d say there’s no such thing. Though we’d also like to humbly request a “Hey y’all” wake word to speak to all three assistants at once. And have questions about whether the assistants know of each other, and may get jealous over time. But we digress.
Not interested in lovingly squeezing your phone or chatting with the peanut gallery inside, and just want some super-duper hardware specs? HTC’s got you. The U11 has a 5.5-inch, 2560×1440 screen, and runs Qualcomm’s brand-spankin’-new Snapdragon 835 processor, along with 4 gigs of RAM and 64 gigs of storage. Its new 12-megapixel camera has wide aperture and fast autofocus, and apparently received the highest score ever from DxO Labs, an independent image-quality tester. (The previous winner was the Google Pixel, which has a truly fantastic camera.) Fingerprint reader: check. Waterproof: check. Sprint exclusive: sadly, check.
The Edge Sense stuff is HTC’s biggest swing here, as the company grasps for a genuinely new and useful way to use your smartphone. It sounds clever, actually, but it’s hard to imagine many developers building for one feature on one Android device, which means phone-squeezing is probably forever just a shortcut button. Luckily, the U11 seems to have plenty of other stuff going for it. The phone’s available for pre-order now, starting at $649 unlocked or $29 a month on your Sprint bill. It comes in blue, black, and silver, all of which look good.
Is it enough to make HTC cool again? We’ll have to see how good those photos really are. And how much we like talking to Alexa on the go. But at first glance, the kitchen-sink approach seems like the right one.
Trundle through as many fancy restaurant kitchens as I have and you’ll start recognizing specialized tools, big and small: little offset spatulas, slablike flat-top griddles, high-powered Vitamix blenders, spoonulas. For years now, many of those kitchens also used something that looks like a cross between a black squirt gun and a battery-powered hookah.
Breville PolyScience Smoking Gun Pro
A fantastic update to a favorite tool for chefs and bartenders. Improvements over the original version make everything better.
It’s a narrow niche for home use. Consider if you’re into this kind of thing before purchasing and filing it away in a drawer after only one use. The screen filter also has a tendency to pop through the burn chamber.
How We Rate
1/10A complete failure in every way
3/10Serious flaws; proceed with caution
4/10Downsides outweigh upsides
5/10Recommended with reservations
6/10Solid with some issues
7/10Very good, but not quite great
8/10Excellent, with room to kvetch
This thing, the PolyScience Smoking Gun, uses a tiny fan to draw a flame across a teaspoon of wood chips or other combustibles to produce a steady stream of smoke, which it expels through a long tube. You can do some pretty cool things with it: I’ve seen chefs present food under a clear glass cloche full of smoke, lifting it tableside to reveal a dish; bartenders will smoke a glass, the booze, or an entire cocktail to impart varying degrees of smokiness. When I worked on The Willows Inn’s cookbook, Sea and Smoke, chef Blaine Wetzel would cold-smoke mussels in a smoker for four hours, sear them on the flat top to caramelize them, tuck them back in their shells, pop them in a tiny cedar box, pipe alder smoke into the box, and immediately walk it out into the dining room, where diners opened the box, sending a puff of smoke billowing toward the ceiling.
Despite its ability to turn a dish or a drink into a showstopper, the original Smoking Gun, like that plastic squirt gun, feels a bit chintzy. It’s also poorly balanced: Even in its stand, a tug on the tube can cause the whole thing to fall over and make a literal hot mess.
Version two, the Smoking Gun Pro ($150)—a joint venture between PolyScience and Breville—solves these problems and improves on the original in just about every way. The original, now referred to as the “legacy” version, is being phased out. In a confusing bit of marketing and nomenclature, there is also the Breville Smoking Gun (no PolyScience, no Pro, $100), with a smaller footprint, diminished capabilities, and less weight.
The Pro offers new features, like a large base for stability, a variable speed fan, and a big shiny removable metal barrel that gives it heft, durability, and undeniable cool. It’s easily disassembled, and many of the components are dishwasher-safe. Comparing the new versions, the non-pro model looks like a cash grab. If, like most people, you’ve never heard of these things and are now considering one, save your pennies a little longer and go Pro.
In and Around
I went to see bartender Jamie Boudreau of the high-end Canon bar in Seattle, and there on the front corner of the bar sat his Smoking Gun Pro. For Boudreau, there are two ways to smoke a drink: in and around. “In is for flavor more than aroma—you get a smokiness in the mouth,” he says. To do this, he pours the booze in a decanter with smoke and gives it a quick shake. “I lean toward the darker spirits. Clear spirits like gin are more delicate, and the smoke can overtake the drink.”
He keeps this in mind making his Khaleesi cocktail. Boudreau brings a glass skull full of tea smoke to the table, adds a mix of Punt e Mes, Blanton’s single-barrel bourbon, and some other lovely ingredients, gives it a quick shake, and pours immediately. Just two shakes, he says—more than that, and you risk the smoke overpowering the drink.
For the around technique, he pipes smoke into a clear smoking box, inundating either the glass or the entire drink in the terrarium-like cube: for example, he might smoke a Manhattan with strawberry tea. Boudreau is clearly a big fan of the Pro. His only quibble is that the screen the wood chips can pop right through the burn chamber (something I experienced during testing), which he avoids by cutting his own screen instead of using the smaller circles that come with the Smoking Gun.
“Other than that,” he summarizes, “everything is better.”
Everything about the Smoking Gun Pro is so much better that chefs and bartenders who have a legacy version ought to seriously consider replacing it. As for everyone else, do you really need one? Tough call. As my wife said, “This wouldn’t rate a spot on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Not even the frivolous end.”
To bring her around, I cooked some sausage in a cast-iron pan, cut it into coins, returned it to the pan, put a lid on it, and piped in some smoke. It gave the sausage a pleasant smell and almost no smoky flavor. It was nice. Even under my industrial-grade vent fan, I worried it might set the smoke detector a-screaming. (It didn’t.)
With further testing, particularly with food, I learned to think of the smoke more like a seasoning: A nice addition, but it doesn’t completely change the meal. You can blend it into a soup or a salsa or whip it into mashed potatoes. You can smoke a salad. You can use all kinds of wood to make smoke or, like Boudreau, you can smoke tea leaves. It’s showy and fun—and very easy to imagine someone buying it or receiving it as a gift, using it once, and never pulling it out of the drawer.
Then again, what do I know about people? I bought a bottle of Famous Grouse and brought it, along with the Pro and a utility lighter, to poker night at my buddy Brian’s house. We went out to his patio to keep the smoke detector from going off, had everyone try a taste of the “regular” whisky, then combined some with mesquite smoke in an empty glass bottle, gave it two quick shakes, and poured a round of shots. The mesquite gave the Scotch a pleasant burnt-marshmallow flavor that everybody was into. Several hands later, Brian pulled out a bottle of Cazadores Reposado and we ran the same experiment on tequila. Here the results were mixed, but it was a lot of fun.
In short, it was a big, showy success, the guys got really into it, and we all tottered off into the night with a smoky buzz.
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Before the ear-computer market took off, before AirPods and Here Ones and EarIn and Skybuds and IQBuds and Kanoa and a thousand other names you’ve never heard of, there was Bragi. The German company blew up on Kickstarter in 2014 after introducing a pair of headphones called Dash, which it claimed could play music, measure your health in complicated ways, let you control your gadgets with a nod, and hear the real world and digital audio simultaneously.
Dash didn’t do everything Bragi promised, and made it clear that this cool new world of in-ear computers remained a ways off. “We’re so early in this entire industry,” says CEO Nikolaj Hviid. “Sometimes I feel we’re a bit too early.”
This week, the company introduced its first ear-puter since the Kickstarter days. The $329 Dash Pro, Hviid says, represents everything the company has learned during its three-plus years trying to reinvent the headphone world—and now, the company is a bit closer to doing all of the wildly ambitious things it promised with that Kickstarter.
The Dash Pro more easily pairs with your phone, Hviid says, and lasts five hours on a charge—nearly double the last model, and far more than you’ll see with Doppler Labs’ similar Here One buds. The case can charge the buds five times before needing an outlet. A new audio codec attempts to improve the audio-passthrough feature, which lets you hear your music and the world simultaneously. Hviid says his team improved everything about the audio—the sound, the noise cancellation, and the voice-input.
Bragi offers two models of Dash Pro, equal in every way save for how they fit in your ear. Bragi worked with Starkey, a company that makes products for the hearing-impaired, to create a custom-molded version. For $499, you can visit a Starkey-approved audiologist and get fitted for a Dash Pro, creating a set of buds tailored specifically for your ears. As any music snob will tell you, custom molds offer huge benefits: They create a tighter, more isolated seal, so you hear more music and less background noise, and they improve audio quality, especially in the low end. It will make the Dash Pro experience better for everyone, especially those with hearing problems.
The earbuds run on a new version of Bragi’s operating system, which will come to the original Dash as well. It enables the simpler pairing process, helps the buds auto-detect a workout, and refines the on-bud touch controls, which until now were about as easy to learn as Morse Code. The new OS also introduces two of the more futuristic features Bragi’s been talking about for years: real-time translation, through a partnership with the iTranslate app, and a gesture interface that lets you control your music just by moving your head. Will you look crazy? Yes, you will. But it’s still handy when your hands are full.
As the ear-computer market grows, everyone’s focusing on a handful of features: These devices should play music, take calls, interact with your virtual assistant, and all the standard headphone stuff. They should co-mingle real and synthetic sound (so you can safely wear them all the time) and interact with anything you hear to translate speech, remove unpleasant sounds, and the like. That’s what Doppler’s working on with the Here Ones, and it’s surely what the next AirPods will start to look like. It all seems a little more doable every day.
Even now, as he launches a product that’s finally more mature and polished, Hviid can’t resist getting ahead of himself again. He speaks eagerly of Bragi’s plans for AI, using the data gathered by its devices to gain a better sense of what you’re doing and how your ear-puters can serve you. The Dash Pro buds now form a mesh network, connecting to each other and nearby devices to share processing and storage power. They can do quite a bit of data-processing on the buds themselves, too: Your Dash could, in theory, tell Alexa that you’re running, so speak up, please.
“I believe very much in natural use cases,” Hviid says. He wants to keep people from tapping and swiping, and let them instead control their tech with voice and gestures. “We still need to understand how we can apply sensors to pick that up, so you can converse and interact naturally with a computer,” he says. The company’s working on a product called Patch, expected later this year, which will consist of small, wearable sensors you can put almost anywhere. They’ll connect to the same mesh network as your earbuds, offering more data—Hviid says you can put one on your foot to accurately track your run, or in your doorway to trigger your smart home.
That doesn’t sound like something you’d expect from a headphone company. But Hviid says Bragi is not a headphone company. Last year, Bragi scrambled to make a set of headphones with more mass appeal called The Headphone. It was a fine product, but got away from what Hviid truly wants to do: build computers. The fact those computers go in your ear, or are even wireless, is secondary.
“The objective was to make computers in your ear that can sense who you are, what you’re doing, and how you’re doing it,” he says. “We make ear computers, we don’t make truly wireless headphones.”
Bragi has some new headphones coming out, and they have more in common with the original Bragi Dash than with the minimal Headphone they launched late last year. The new Dash PRO and Dash PRO tailored by Starkey are more powerful wearable computers, with the Starkey variant adding tech from Starkey, which is a maker of high-end audio and hearing tech.
The Starkey version is being called “the world’s first custom-made wireless ear computer,” and you can tell Bragi is serious about the tagline because they italicize it throughout their press release announcing the news. They are also only going to be sold via 5,000 “audiologists,” using a “highly-assisted personalized shopping experience,” all of which sounds unbearably ostentatious.
But it’s a high-end experience for a high-priced product – Bragi is asking $499 U.S. for the Dash PRO tailored by Starkey, while the regular PRO will only cost $329 U.S. The Starkey version has bud tips created from a mold of the user’s ears, however, meaning perfect seal and sound isolation theoretically. Plus tire’s an actual damn laser engraving of the user on both the slider that holds the buds, and on the earbuds themselves.
The Dash PRO (non-tailored by Starkey version) is basically an upgraded version of the original DASH, with up to five hours of battery life (and another five charges possible via the included case). It includes passthrough active audio transparency, like the oriingla, as well as a new codec to help further minimize background white noise, and new foam tips for improved sound isolation in addition to Bragi’s FitSleeves. A built-in 32-bit processor and a suite of 27 sensors help power the onboard computing functions.
Those features also get an update; Dash PRO now supports iTranslate compatibility, meaning you can actually translate speech on the fly using the headphones, which is a bit like having a real world babelfish from A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, or like miniaturizing C-3PO and having him sit in your ear canal. iTranslate works with 40 languages, but it’ll require use of the iTranslate Pro app downloaded to your iOS device. Dash PRO owners get a 30-day free trial to see if it’s magical enough to continue paying for iTranslate’s services.
There’s also a new 4D menu system, which lets you control the Dash PRO, as well as the original Dash, just by moving your head around if your hands are otherwise occupied. Sounds interesting, but we’ll reserve judgement until we have the chance to check it out for ourselves.
Other new features coming to Dash devices via the software update, which is Bragi’s third major OS revision, include one-touch Bluetooth connections, automatic tracking of fitness activities, a simplified touch UI and offline storage of workout tracking. There’s also a reworked audio profile, and better audio transparency based on testing and user feedback.
Both Dash PRO variants go on sale now at Bragi’s website (with distribution to retailers including Best Buy to follow soon). Dash PRO is available in all your favorite colors, so long as your favorite color is black. The Starkey version is available with a special case that has a Starkey gold leather inlay in the case, but they’re also black for the buds themselves.
Hearables are still a very young category, but the original Dash was promising, delisted its issues, and the Headphone was largely an improvement in terms of connectivity and audio. Hopefully the Dash PRO is a marriage and an upgrade of both.
May 16, 2017 / Comments Off on Bragi’s new Dash PRO headphones are true wearable head computers